The Lessons that Matter
Learning how to live
Photo by Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu
When my father died three years ago, shortly before his ninety-ninth birthday, I received an unusual gift I would not otherwise possess. I had never seriously thought about death. After my father’s funeral, the thought played in my mind on repeat.
Once a seemingly infinite commodity, time began to take on a particular urgency. I became vigilant and hyper-aware of it, like I might attend to a quickening heartbeat. This enhanced awareness, I now realize, was my father’s legacy. It was like receiving a GPS to guide me through the rest of my life. In his last years, he gave me his wisdom, piece by piece, one conversation at a time. Our long conversations, which started when he moved to a long-term care residence and continued until the day he died three years later, rearranged my priorities.
As I became more sensitive to the passage of time, I began wondering how I wanted to be remembered. What lasting memory would I leave my family? I did not want their final memories of me to be of a woman on her deathbed. I wanted to leave something more enduring as my father did. Learning how to die became learning how to live. An important question arose: am I doing enough with the time left in this life?
I tell my family and friends I love them. I strive to do what is out of my comfort zone. Sometimes I talk to strangers on the subway. I use the good dishes. I try to be kind, even with the simplest gesture. And I try to be less cranky. Believe me, I fall short of the ideal every day.
My father had an optimistic disposition, and that’s how I remember him. In the last years of his life, the years when I felt closest to him, you could see in his eyes that he considered every day a gift. He often said he thanked God for the day and prayed to be granted the gift of another.
He never told me how to live my life or expected me to be a certain way. Instead, he taught by example. He unfailingly greeted people warmly and had a firm handshake. He showed me it was important to do my bit for the community and those less fortunate than I was. He was generous with his time and money. He voted in every election and canvassed for those running for elected office. He had strong convictions, even though I did not agree with them all. He was proud of his children and unfailingly told us so. He cherished my mother and stood by her in a relationship that flowed easily with no drama. If only I could emulate all of this.
I sometimes wonder if my father’s death has distorted my memory of him. Death often casts an idealistic light of love on those who are gone and smooths the rough edges. Regardless of how lovable, resilient, and optimistic my father was, he was a human being, and we all have complexities, frailties, prides, and prejudices. I don’t think his death has altered my memory. He was a good force in the world.
A little over a year after my father’s death, I read a story in my local newspaper about Nadia Chaudhri, a young Montreal neuroscientist diagnosed with metastatic ovarian cancer. She was chronicling her experience with the disease on social media, and I immediately began following her on Twitter and Instagram. The post that caught the media’s attention and went viral was a tweet:
“Today is the day I tell my son that I am dying from cancer. Let all my tears flow now so that I can be brave this afternoon. Let me howl with grief now so that I can comfort him.”
Her little boy had just started the first grade, and his mother was in palliative care. With her remaining time, she raised money for a graduate neuroscience fellowship in her name for under-represented students at Concordia University, where she was a professor. And she prepared her young son, who she referred to as my sun, telling him what would happen and that she would always be with him. In a reassuringly beautiful tweet, she showed the picture she drew of him and his father planting her ashes at the base of a serviceberry tree — a tree that blooms continually and changes colours with the seasons.
“I drew this to help my sun visualize my wishes. I hope it will help.”
Her son would always find her there. I teared up reading this.
Nadia lived her life with purpose and courage, the same way she faced death. A friend who works in alumni relations at Concordia told me about her only encounter with Professor Chaudhri. In a snarky tweet, Nadia had complained that a man had yet again received the alumni scholarship. My friend called her, but before she could say anything, Nadia intervened.
“I bet you didn’t get any great nominations from women.”
“Yes, I can’t just make up nominations. They have to come from the community.”
“I’ll take care of that.” And from that year on, Nadia did, nominating worthy female students.
The stories my father told me about his life during our last conversations remain vivid. They are his legacy. His death certificate says he died of natural causes. I like to think he died because his life was complete, all his stories told. His death started an even longer conversation about life and legacy that continues in my head to this day. My father left a roadmap for how I might live my life and a lens through which to see the meaning of my experiences. I have taken his roadmap and I am following it to where it leads.
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